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Many nonfiction books contain factual errors, flawed conclusions, or both. Many book reviews fail to point out these shortcomings. In combination, a flawed book and a naive review mean readers are ill-served. I am among the guilty reviewers. At the end of 1999, I gave glowing reviews to two nonfiction books that I have since learned are more flawed, perhaps significantly, in ways I had not realized. In previous years, I have been guilty, too. But I had not learned well from my mistakes. Nor had most other reviewers and book review editors. It is time for change. The traditional excuses are sounding increasingly lame. Granted, the ultimate responsibility for a book’s accuracy is the author’s. The publisher ought to, but often does not, take responsibility for accuracy as well. I have written about how authors and publishers ought to change their ways. As an author, I have done my best to practice what I preach. As a reviewer, though, I have granted myself an exemption. Until now. What happened to finally awaken me? It began with my review for Legal Times of “Mean Justice,” published by Simon & Schuster. My review appeared on April 5, 1999. The author is Edward Humes, who won print journalism’s most coveted prize — the Pulitzer — in 1989 while doing investigative reporting at The Orange County Register. Before “Mean Justice,” Humes wrote four other books about crime. I favorably reviewed in the March 4, 1996, Legal Times his examination of the juvenile justice system, “No Matter How Loud I Shout.” When I received “Mean Justice,” I felt a surge of excitement. Like Humes, I’m an investigative newspaper reporter turned magazine free-lancer and book author; I enjoy keeping up with the work of professional colleagues. Second, I was curious to see whether Humes could top “No Matter How Loud I Shout.” Third, I had begun writing about wrongful convictions and prosecutorial misconduct, the topics of “Mean Justice.” In addition to highly praising Humes, my review of “Mean Justice” accepted at face value his contentions that the prosecutor in Kern County, Calif., the focus of the book, frequently abused his authority, resulting in the convictions of dozens of innocent men and women. Did I call prosecutor Edward Jagels for comment? No. Did I question anybody at all with independent knowledge of Humes’ charges? No. Why not? Because I admired Humes’ past work, and nothing in the text or in the copious source notes set off alarms in my mind. Because I assumed Simon & Schuster, one of the nation’s two largest trade book publishers, would assign all the editors and lawyers necessary to vet such a controversial book. Because book reviews are often written under pressing deadlines for relatively little pay. Because lots of book review editors (although by no means all) have told me to judge what I am reading based solely on the text. The average reader has neither the time nor the inclination to check for accuracy, book review editors have said: The reviewer should be a surrogate for potential readers of the book, evaluating it in the same ways they would. I have written two lengthy articles for the Columbia Journalism Review about the breadth and depth of inaccuracy in nonfiction books. As an author of seven books, I know that publishers rarely perform a thorough accuracy check. Yet as a reviewer, I forgot to subject myself to the discipline I knew to be necessary. My comeuppance arrived in the mail approximately five months after I wrote the review. Jagels and Deputy District Attorney Deborah Spagnoli, far away in Bakersfield, Calif., sent me, other reviewers, and book review editors a 154-page rebuttal to “Mean Justice.” Self-serving? Sure, at some level. Vicious in its attacks on Humes? Yes, perhaps, but from Jagel’s perspective, about as vicious as Humes’ statements concerning him. Despite my admiration of Humes, parts of Spagnoli’s cover letter stung: “Unfortunately you, along with many other reviewers, accepted Humes’ claims without attempting to verify his cited ‘evidence’ by contacting someone in Kern County regarding the book’s accuracy.” She ended the letter with the hope “that the next time you review a nonfiction book that is more advocacy than objective journalism, you will be a bit more critical and less likely to simply accept the author’s agenda.” According to Spagnoli, not one reviewer or book review editor contacted her about the rebuttal — except me. After obtaining a magazine contract to explore the controversy, I traveled to California, where I interviewed Spagnoli, Jagels, Humes, and many others. Had Jagels cooperated with Humes when the author was reporting and writing his book? No, but there existed a rich public record concerning Jagels’ career, and some of Jagels’ current and former assistant prosecutors did cooperate with Humes. I personally questioned Humes on point after point. He obviously had to concede factual errors I uncovered, but he rejected Jagels’ more sweeping criticisms. I know enough now to state that Humes made numerous factual errors. I still admire the book and would recommend it to anybody interested in the wrongful conviction phenomenon. If, however, I knew when I wrote the review what I know now, I would have pointed out the errors and toned down my praise. On May 10, 1999, a few weeks after finishing my review of “Mean Justice,” I reviewed “A Glimpse of Hell,” published by W.W. Norton. (Disclosure: I am currently under contract to write a book for Norton.) The author, Charles C. Thompson II, is a former television and newspaper digger with a reputation as a knowledgeable, aggressive producer for ABC’s “20/20″ and CBS’ “60 Minutes.” Thompson’s earlier book about the truth behind Elvis Presley’s death had won published praise from me in The IRE Journal, the magazine of Investigative Reporters and Editors Inc. Thompson’s account of how the U.S. Navy allegedly contributed to the 1989 explosion on the USS Iowa that killed 47 men, then orchestrated a cover-up, persuaded me utterly. The sourcing seemed solid. Thompson mentions examining more than 25,000 documents and shares the contents of some of them — separate inquiries led by high-ranking military officers after the explosion; a study by the General Accounting Office, Congress’ watchdog agency; lawsuits filed after the 1989 explosion; deck logs and message traffic; journals, diaries, letters, and notes of about two dozen knowledgeable individuals; interviews with about 100 others; plus dozens of statements from congressional testimony or depositions in a lawsuit. Reviews I saw later in other publications praised the book. One reviewer lauding Thompson’s expos� was Lt. Col. Jeff W. Bolander, a survivor of the Iowa explosion ( Marine Corps Gazette, December 1999). My review congratulated the author and was especially hard on the ship’s captain, Fred Moosally. I ended by writing, “Readers who accept Thompson’s account … will quite likely wonder how Moosally and a number of his superiors can sleep at night.” I never called Moosally to ask if he was sleeping well or any other questions. Approximately four months later, I received an 18-page rebuttal letter from David J. Branson of Washington, D.C.’s Wallace King Marraro & Branson, who was representing Moosally. Accompanying the letter were hundreds of pages of documents meant to demonstrate Thompson’s unreliability with facts. (Moosally had not cooperated with Thompson, but many of his supporters did, and Thompson mined a rich public record on Moosally’s career.) I studied the rebuttal documents, many of which were technical in nature, and spoke with Branson, who said: “This is only the second case I have worked on since 1975 when I began to represent the press where there is actual malice. I have had the good fortune to represent Time Inc., Jack Anderson, The Washington Star, and WJLA-TV, the ABC affiliate in D.C., among others, and never has any journalist I have worked with made any publication remotely like this. I am not generally inclined to work for plaintiffs in libel matters or to work without pay, but after I came to that conclusion, I agreed to help Captain Moosally for free.” Besides citing many specific passages of “A Glimpse of Hell” that he believes are inaccurate, Branson speculated to me why Thompson “heaped so much abuse on Captain Moosally.” Branson’s speculation was not easy to summarize, but consisted largely of the argument that Thompson had to falsely turn Moosally into a villain to make the master narrative of the book work. I contacted Thompson, who said he had neither heard about nor seen any of the material. I then suggested to Branson that he send the material to Thompson, so we could have a three-way discussion at some point. Branson agreed and did so. From the beginning, Branson and Thompson, a Navy veteran, were at loggerheads, but both cooperated with me. Over the next 10 months, Branson expanded his attack on the book. Thompson, on the other hand, stood by his facts and the conclusions he drew from them, and reacted at length and angrily to Branson in communications with me. In early February of this year, Branson met in New York City with Thompson and four people representing the book’s publisher, W.W. Norton, including an outside lawyer, Renee Schwartz of Kronish Lieb Weiner & Hellman. Norton, one of the most prestigious publishers in the industry, planned to issue a paperback version of the book, but Branson wanted revisions before the paperback appeared. In response to a request from Schwartz to focus on what “really” mattered to Moosally and others on the battleship represented by Branson, Branson had sent a list of 25 items. That list served as the agenda for the meeting. In mid-March, Schwartz, speaking for the publisher, sent Branson 27 pages that she said would be changed for the paperback edition “as a result of discussions with you or otherwise relating to your points.” This turn of events appeared to be a victory for Moosally and showed remarkable responsiveness by a publisher and an author. Yet, ambiguity shadowed Norton’s decision. Could the changes also be viewed as an admission of reportorial carelessness as reflected in the hardcover edition? Or might at least some of the changes be a path-of-least-resistance philosophy on the parts of Thompson and Norton to head off litigation? Some of the changes would have made Moosally look less evil and more competent than in the hardcover. Yet, other changes had nothing to do with Moosally, reflecting instead on others from the ship who had been communicating with Branson. Regardless, the paperback version of the book has yet to appear. Thompson informed me in May that “[t]he paperback is not scheduled to be published now. I’m in the process of getting my full rights back … . Anything that Branson negotiated with Norton is null and void.” Regardless of the outcome of this conflict, there are certain issues that it raises. For example, did I treat Moosally unfairly? How could I have failed to call him before writing the review? Had I been writing a news story for Legal Times or any other outlet, it would have been incumbent upon me according to craft standards to seek opposing viewpoints. Why should it be any different for book reviews, which are, after all, packaged with the rest of the publication, giving them its imprimatur? An irony here is that Humes and Thompson, Simon & Schuster and Norton, are among the best in the book realm. There are many, many authors and publishers whose accuracy needs checking far more urgently. Yet reviewers traditionally fail to accuracy-check even the books whose authors have terrible reputations. No reviewer should have to re-report an entire book. But spot checks would be a good starting point on the road to reform. Steve Weinberg served as executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors Inc., an international organization working to improve the craft, from 1983 to 1990. He is a free-lance writer in Columbia, Mo.

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